Black Rabbit Hall – Eve Chase

Black_rabbitLuckily, with novels, usually you can tell from the subject, the tone, the style of writing and the characters whether it is going to be your sort of book or not pretty much straight up. Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase was unusual for me in that I loved the strand set in the late 60s with young heroine, Amber, and her family but was left cold by the contemporary strand centred around Lorna. While there was drama and interest in the first strand, and a tragedy that pulls the family apart with far-reaching consequences, twenty-something contemporary Lorna is self-satisfied, dull and annoying – the plot device that links her to Black Rabbit Hall is unbelievable and unlikely, and while she has to confront something in her past, her tribulations are trivial compared to those of the earlier family. There is also a light-hearted silliness in the contemporary strand that sat uneasily with the tension and growing unease in the 60s storyline, for me. This miscalculation was such a pity as Chase creates-a wonderful portrait of the Alton family, especially the children and Amber’s close, but fraught, relationship with her twin brother Toby. When the tragedy occurs and all sorts of strains are placed on the family, we really do get drawn into their world and a sense of rising crisis when a step mother and her handsome son are inserted into it. Amber’s innocence but also her need to grow up is poignantly and sensitively done.

I could hardly bear to read the pat ending to this book, when Lorna comes into her own. I don’t think she deserved her redemption. I won’t do a spoiler but the ending really made me angry like it was some sort of tacked on finery designed to pretty up the picture, but which in reality dragged it all down.

Top books 2015

A_Thousand_AcresIt’s probably a bit late in the day for this but here goes. Of course I loved all seven of the Harry Potters as I unabashedly admit here – they will always have a place in my heart. Nevertheless, my top read for 2015 was Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. I had heard of this book, first published in 1991, so I bought a secondhand copy that, unfortunately had Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange in a schmaltzy embrace on the cover, so I put it aside (I seem to have missed ‘winner of the Pulitzer prize’ at the top). For some reason I picked it up early last year. I was sucked in to this muscular family saga immediately. She’s such a great writer – her characters might, at first glance, look like all-American mid-west people, but they are anything but – they seethe with ambition, jealously, violence, lust. With resonances of King Lear (a father who decides to leave the running of the rich family acreage to his three daughters) it zings with tension and betrayal. Smiley is Book-cover-Wildwriting a new family saga trilogy starting with Some Luck and Early Warning. They are big books so I’m leaving a bit of space before I tackle them.

My second favourite book for the year was Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. Some readers might be put off by the ‘self-help’ implications of the title but this is an extremely cleverly-written book. Just how Strayed can make a story of walking by herself through the wilderness for a couple of months so compelling, to my way of thinking, is a masterclass in non-fiction writing. By the end, you’ve really gone on that body-breaking trip with her: she’s an everywoman of her time. I did cry when she came to the end of the trail and the story.

Thoughts on Harry Potter covers

HP French DeathlyThe French editions have very evocative covers – take the one for The Deathly Hallows. A title that always sounded funny to me, although beautifully sad. Apparently hallow means:

1.  to make holy; sanctify; consecrate.

2. Obsolete to honour as holy.

Perhaps the French title is more accurate: et les reliques de la mort.

On this cover Harry stares out pensively to the sea as he does when he is at Bill and Fleur’s cliff top house, Shell Cottage, and wrestling with his own destiny.

On the new Bloomsbury cover below, they concentrate on the final fight between Voldemort and Harry and, strangely make Harry look quite young, although he is 17 in this book. The covers have ravishing colours and are very dynamic but they manage to keep the cartoonish element of the original covers.

The Telegraph (UK) newspaper has a comparison between the old and new covers, which is quite interesting.New deathly Hallows

I also love the French cover for the first book. The bemused, but also hopeful, expression on the faces of Harry, Hermione and Ron kitted up in their robes and witches’ hats. Interestingly the French weren’t too squeamish to highlight the witch/wizard aspect with related paraphernalia. Remember the brouhaha in the US about the supernatural elements? The original Scholastic (US) edition cover for The Sorcerer’s Stone did include Harry riding his broomstick but in a fairly understated way where the broomstick in question could easily be a BMX bike. I could only find a small thumbnail of this cover but you can make him out zooming into a tower at Hogwarts, tiny cape flying ans wearing jeans and a sweater.

Sorcerer's_stone_coverharrypotterfrance

A year of reading Harry Potter

HP-and-the-philosophers-stone-original I was a bit of a book snob in my younger years and eschewed Harry Potter, buying in to all the other snobby things that were said about JK Rowling – that she was a pedestrian writer, that it was infantile for adults to read the Potter books, that the best thing you could say about Rowling was that she got kids reading.

Of course there is something annoying about one writer becoming so incredibly wealthy and feted, while other fantasy writers, arguably just as good, sold many fewer books and were much less well-known. There is something not right about a publishing industry that concentrates so much on a small number of authors who they promote to the hilt, while letting others wither. But all this should not have stopped me giving the Potter books a go.

I’m sure I would have been hooked, even back then. I remember a co-worker suggesting I buy The Philosophers Stone for one of my young nephews when it first came out. I dropped in to Better Read Than Dead in Newtown but thought the cover looked silly and Harry-potter-new-chamber-of-secrets-cover-630comicky and didn’t buy it (the publishers did recognise this fact and put out various editions so that adults and older readers wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen reading them). I bought The Subtle Knife instead and so got us all hooked on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (equally fantastic).

Anyhow if I had become a Potter fan in 1997, like everyone else I would have had to wait a year or two between instalments (how on earth did all the kids bear that?). So in 2015 I finally got around to reading a second-hand copy of The Philosopher’s Stone that I had in the bookshelf for years. I was then ushered in to the mysteriously enveloping world of the Potterverse, as they like to call it. How on earth does she do it? What exactly is it about Harry Potter than is so utterly absorbing? I don’t know that I exactly have the answer because, in my opinion, what shouldn’t work, does absolutely, without a doubt.

I will note that with the later books, it did take me longer to get into the story but after HP good quality prisonerfifty or sixty pages, she always had me hooked. It’s like a big wave comes over you and you’re in.

So, what is it? Some of it is the misunderstood child – the child with special abilities shunned by their society (the Dursleys) having to find their place. In the beginning Harry is totally at sea, not knowing that he is from wizarding stock. Like the reader, he has to find out all about the new world of Hogwarts and the fun really begins in Diagon Alley when he has to select a wand, gets his robes, cauldron, owl etc.

The beautifully detailed world of Hogwarts is the next deeply satisfying element. Rowling creates a wonderfully described world, the type of school everyone would have liked to have gone to. Who doesn’t desire a dining hall where the ceiling dissolves to show the night sky above, where candelabras hover and scrumptious food magically appears on plates?

goblet of fireHarry, despite his scar and the mystery surrounding his birth, or perhaps because of it, is an outsider. He hooks up with two other outsiders, the bookish, too-serious Hermione and the fairly inept, lacking-in-confidence Ron. I loved Hermione and identified with her wanting to make the most out of what Hogwarts offered – the classes: ‘potions’, ‘herbology’, ‘transfiguration’, ‘charms’, ‘divination’, ‘care of magical creatures’ and of course ‘defence against the dark arts’ are some of the most fun aspects of the books (not to mention the fun to be had with the spells and their latinese names lumos, expelliarmus, protego, leviosa, reparo – so hard learnt in the early books and then used as second-nature in the later ones). Ron, I wasn’t so keen on but I saw, in the end, how his humour and matter-of-factness was a necessary aid to Harry as the books become darker and he comes to realise the full, terrible intent of his fight with Voldemort.

The other thing that is so satisfying is the way Rowling puts the books together. Each book is excellently plotted with its own complex mystery to be solved, but the sense of an HP Phoenixoverarching purpose is maintained. I was always a bit confused about how the Hogwarts/wizarding world fitted in with the ordinary (muggle) world but Rowling does explain this as the books progress. The whole narrative, that eventually brings in the backstory of Harry’s parents, Dumbeldore and Voldemort, is a huge, complex jigsaw puzzle that, in the end, you realise Rowling was totally in control of. (By the way, this is something that is missed in the films. Maybe it was because things had to be telegraphed to get into two or three hours, but it was hard to tell what was going on for most of the time. There was much that was fantastic about the characters in the films – Rickman as Snape, Smith as McGonnagall, both Dumbledores, and the three of Harry, Ron and Hermione were spot on – and the set design/mis en scene was wonderful – but the actual storyline??)

Does that explain it? Does Rowling key into the tropes of the hero’s journey, the story that is supposed to be hardwired into our consciousness – you know: the call to a quest, the  French_Book_6_Coverrefusal, the mentor, the cave, realisation, the facing of the enemy, the return etc.? Of course she does but so do many other writers who have not achieved her fame.

I feel it is more about the strong pull of childhood when we are free of responsibilities and can live in the imagination. Boarding school (for all its horrors in the real world) it a place away from the restrictive world of parents where we can be actualised as individuals, where new possibilities open up to us. I believe we are all terribly nostalgic for that time. I know I am.

Farewell Potterverse (sniff).

Jack of Spades – Joyce Carol Oates

spadesWriters like to write about writers and the hero of this comic thriller is Andrew J Rush, a successful mystery writer. Rush is quite chuffed when a reviewer calls him the gentlemanly Stephen King but as becomes more and more apparent as the novel progressives it’s probably the Stephen King likeness rather than the gentlemanly, that he values. Unbeknownst to his wife and his agent, Rush has an alter ego in the form of ‘Jack of Spades’, the name he uses as a pseudonym for  other books he publishes. While Rush’s other writing is ‘gentlemanly’, Jack of Spades’ work is brutal and crude, so much so that when rush’s college student daughter spies one of the Jack of Spades books in her father’s study and decides to read it, she is appalled.

Things start to unravel when someone called C W Haider sues Rush for plagiarism. The depiction of the flash New York lawyer that Rush’s publisher assigns to defend him is skewered beautifully by Oates, as is the machinations of Haider, who turns out to be a serial litigant (and, yes, she has also accused Stephen King of stealing from her [Haider’s] self-published works).

Rush, who, when we first meet him as a successful, controlled individual would have let the lawyer do his worst, and not become involved. But Rush has started drinking and can’t sleep: Jack of Spades is whispering in his ear, and by degrees, he starts to bThe_Museum_of_Dr._Mosesecome indiscreet and obsessed by Haider, and his carefully compartmentalised life begins to fall apart.

This is a slight book, but satisfyingly written. The spoof on writers, success, fans and publishing is spot on.

Oates’ dark edge is not so obvious here but is very evident in The Museum of Dr Moses, a creepy collection of stories I recently read by her.

Mocking-bird or why I won’t be reading Go Set a Watchman

watchblueWhy I won’t be reading Go Set a Watchman.

I have been watching the reviews of Watchman and waiting for someone to call a spade a spade, but the first reviews were insipidly, mildly positive, only commenting on the shock to readers that Atticus Finch, now 72, has turned racist.

Anyone taking an interest in how the manuscript was ‘found’ and the present life of Harper Lee must have smelt a rat, or to use a current turn of phrase, it doesn’t pass the sniff test. We know that Harper Lee is elderly, deaf and with diminishing eyesight. We know she lives quietly in Monroeville, the town on which To Kill a Mockingbird’s Maycomb is based, and has lived there since the 60s. We know that Lee has not given interviews over the years and that Lee had a protective sister, Alice (a lawyer), who died last year.

We also know that the manuscript for Watchman was ‘found’ in a safety security box a few years ago along with Lee’s will.

It is also evident that had Harper Lee wanted to publish Watchman she could have done so at any time in the last 50 years and she would have then been able to rewrite, revise etc. Obviously, given that the depiction of Atticus (reportedly based on her father) would have been hurtful, she may have been loath to do so, yet, also obviously, she was prepared to publish in the late 50s when she presented the manuscript to a literary agent.

At the time of first writing Watchman Lee was living in New York – a young woman trying to make her way as a writer in the big smoke and, we can assume, attempting to break away from her roots in Monroeville at a time of the growing civil rights movement.

WatchorangeAfter the phenomenal success of Mockingbird, Lee retreated from public life and returned to live quietly in Alabama.

From all accounts Watchman is not a polished work but retains many of the hallmarks of a draft novel.

What writer would be happy to have a preliminary novel published without the chance to revise? It is also reported that Lee did not want anything changed on the manuscript.

One may ask oneself, who wins from this publication? Not Lee and her reputation as a novelist. She must already be a wealthy woman and so would not need the money. The novel reportedly is critical of Monroeville, albeit, in the 60s, yet Lee still lives there, and is now embroiled in the controversy that has arisen from the novel.

As they say, follow the money trail.

Of course a lot of people will read Watchman out of curiosity but if you are going to spend your money on a novel why, oh why, not spend it on the hundreds, thousands, of other brilliant novels out there by new, emerging or mid-career novelists. Yes, I know the argument that when multinational publishers (HarperCollins in this instance) have a bestseller, it fills their coffers and they can then support (take a punt on) new writers. I’ll counter that with, when a reader buys a book that is hyped up and they are then disappointed with it, they may not be willing to buy another.

I am not sorry that Watchman has been shown the light of day. It is important for literary scholars and, as many have said, it does give a fascinating insight into the antecedence of To Kill a Mockingbird and how rewriting and ‘re-envisaging’ can work so well.

The best review I have read so far is by Robert McCrum in The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/19/go-set-watchman-harper-lee-review-literary-curiosity.

Miss Timmins’ School for Girls – Nayana Currimbhoy

TimminsThis quite long novel set in India in the 1970s is an odd mixture of boarding school story, murder mystery and coming of age story of young, inexperienced teacher Charu but it doesn’t really follow the tropes of any of these genres.

Twenty something Charu who was born with a disfiguring birthmark on her face she calls a ‘blot’ takes a job teaching at a girls’ boarding school in Panchgani, a high scenic area a few hours out of Bombay. She is inexperienced but wins over some of the girls with her teaching of Macbeth, but soon she comes under the sway of a white teacher, Moira Prince, known to the girls as ‘the Prince’ or to Charu as Pin. Pin is wild and the girls steer clear of her but her freedom from convention is attractive to Charu, and she becomes involved with Pin and her friend Merch, a poetry reading, drug-taking man who lives an idle life above a dispensary in town, occasionally teaching at the school.

But no sooner do we get to know Pin, and she has started an affair with Charu, than the Prince is dead, seemingly murdered and thrown off a cliff. The rest of the novel is involved with solving this murder, in one way or another, but quite tangentially.

The middle section switches to the point of view of three of the school girls who were in the vicinity of the tragedy on that wet and windy monsoon night when it occurred. They saw something (including Charu running down from the spot) but are not sure what it all means. They begin investigating, and the main girl, Nandita, who has always liked Charu, is given a dangerous piece of evidence that will point the guilt in a particular direction.

In the last third of the novel we return to Charu’s point of view, the attempted suicide of her mother, and an old humiliation of her father that has diminished the family is revisited. We get to see Charu’s extended family, their meddling and their support, and the pressure put on women to conform. Meanwhile Charu returns to Panchgani and there are arrests and threatened violence, and nothing about the Prince’s death is as simple as it seemed.

All this makes it sound like it is a plot-driven novel but it’s not really. It’s really, I think, the author’s recollections of her own time at a girl’s boarding school and her exploration of how a person who doesn’t fit in, navigates her way around her family and society. What is wonderful about it, for a non-Indian, is a lovely insight into Indian culture that is a far cry from the stereotyped Raj or the gritty urban take on poverty and corruption. I loved the detail of the school still, in the 70s, run on British lines and the unspoken but evident divide between white and brown, the feel of the monsoon and the landscape, and the descriptions of food and family life. It’s a baggy, voluminous tale but the experience of another world is very enjoyable.

Clade – review

cladeThis is a clever, low-key speculative fiction novel where, when the disasters come (climate change, plague), they are normalised into the lives of the characters. If you’ve lived long enough like me, you’ve seen this happen yourself. When I was a child it was inconceivable that animals like tigers or koalas might become endangered, inconceivable that every square inch of the world might be touched by humans – yet here we are.

Clade starts at about our own time with a young scientist, Adam, in Antarctica observing the vanishing sea ice. Adam’s partner, Ellie, is back in Sydney waiting to hear if her IVF treatment has been successful. This family, in a way, is the genetic code running through the book, the stories like the moments of mutation that shift along biology. Bradley doesn’t give us a comfortable narrative arc, but rather a series of linked stories exploring aspects of our possible future that concentrate on human relations – husband and wife, father and daughter, grandfather and grandson, against a backdrop of floods, plague, migration upheavals, repression, all seen through reality as well as the plethora of ‘screens’ and ‘overlays’ pumping out ‘feeds’. Clade, in its structure, reminded me of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge in the power and emotional depth that can be achieved by building up something through concentrating on a particular aspect and character, and then just letting a certain resonance happen between the different stories. I’m not quite sure how this works and, in a way, it shouldn’t – it should seem disjointed but it’s not.

Climate change, as our esteemed ex-prime minister said, is the greatest moral challenge of our time. There are many dystopian novels around now, and I’m sure there will be more. Bradley’s is a refreshing take on this, rooted in the everyday at a human level, yet at times quite wildly speculative, full of interesting takes on things, on the dark thoughts about the future most of us must have.

 

Turn of Mind – Alice LaPlante

turnofmindDr Jennifer White suffers from Alzheimer’s and she is the narrator of this murder mystery (where she is implicated as the murderer). How is this possibly going to work as a narrative? LaPlante cleverly works out a way to give us an intriguing, tense, absorbing novel. Because of her condition, Jennifer is almost always in the present (although she does, at times, fleetingly remember the past) – but her ‘presentness’ is necessarily only contained in brief passages of clarity. Luckily Jennifer is an orthopaedic surgeon, a well-off upper class resident of Chicago so she is erudite and sardonic.

While it is Jennifer who narrates the story, LaPlante uses the device of a journal that is filled in by Jennifer’s carer, Magdalena and her (Jennifer’s) daughter, Fiona, so that Jennifer can read what was said and done the previous day (for example, when she denies something has happened, Magdalena can point to the section of the journal as proof). There are also some letters and photos that have been pasted in that Magdalena or Fiona feel might help Jennifer to remain tethered to her past life.

It’s a bit of a trick, but probably a necessary one, that laPlante includes the dialogue that Jennifer hears but, obviously, doesn’t ‘narrate’ to us as such.

In this way, aspects of the past are slowly pieced together – what Jennifer’s relationship was with her friend Amanda (who has been found murdered with four fingers on her hand amputated), her husband James, and her children Fiona and Mark. A thread of tension runs through when an inquisitive detective takes an ongoing interest in Jennifer.

Running counter to a resolution of the mystery is the deterioration in Jennifer’s condition. Despite her snippiness, the reader can’t help hoping against hope that Jennifer retains her independence, her lucidity. LaPlante beautifully captures the richness of Jennifer’s remembrances and observations, as well as the black humour of the mind getting things askew.

This aspect of the novel is satisfying in itself, even without the murder device. I guess pitching a novel about Alzheimer’s isn’t as attractive as an Alzheimer’s mystery thriller. I felt the final revelation in this strand was weak but this doesn’t detract from the strength of the novel as a whole. There are a lot of these narrow, limited-focus novels on the market lately – S J Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. They are a one-trick pony but very compelling for all that.